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Dr. J. Brent Crosson: Researching religion and secularism in the Anglophone Caribbean

Brent Crosson

Dr. J. Brent Crosson, assistant professor, Department of Religious Studies, is an anthropologist of religion and secularism with a focus in the Anglophone Caribbean and the intersection of science and religion.

Before arriving at UT Austin, he was an ACLS/Mellon Dissertation Completion Fellow at UC Santa Cruz and a Ruth Landes Memorial postdoctoral fellow in cultural anthropology at New York University. His research has been published in The Journal of Africana Religions and Cultural Anthropology’s Fieldnotes as well as the Duke University Press journal Small Axe.

We spoke with Dr. Crosson to learn more about his studies and his recent fieldwork in Trinidad.

The intersection of religion and science in the Caribbean… My research centers on religious practices that were made illegal and punished under British colonial laws. These laws called the practices they regulated “obeah,” and the first law against obeah was passed in Jamaica following Tacky’s Slave Rebellion in 1760.  Colonial officials identified the leaders of the rebellion as obeah practitioners and passed laws with severe penalties that included death and expulsion. Obeah simply denoted practices of healing and protection that ritual specialists used to help others. Healers were also potentially able to earn a living through this work that made them more independent from the slave plantation economy. I look at contemporary struggles to re-value obeah in the Caribbean after centuries of stigmatization and criminalization.

Fieldwork in Trinidad… For the past 9 years or so, I have conducted fieldwork in Trinidad on obeah laws.  My interest in science emerges from the fact that science is a synonym for obeah in the Anglophone Caribbean. While colonial discourse often pitted science against obeah, healers have talked about these words and their relation in very different ways. I treat healers as theorists on science, who transform some of the taken-for-granted ideas in the history, philosophy, and anthropology of science.

Developing a relationship with his host family… The father of the family I lived with in Trinidad was a former preacher who came to reject the mainline Christian church he had been raised in. He went through various forms of social stigmatization for his subsequent decision to adopt more Afrocentric forms of practice. He was kind of a philosopher of religion who, from his training as a minister, was used to delivering extempo philosophical exegesis (interpretation). I helped to start a volunteer program on the family farm through the Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF) organization, which is now run by his daughter and a mutual friend.

Relishing the relationships with students and faculty… I really appreciate the intellectual community here and the openness of faculty to work within and across disciplines. Though UT is a large university, I have been surprised by how friendly and close-knit the scholarly community feels.

Response to “Magic, Science, and Religion” course… Students told me that it changed the way they thought about the relations between science and religion. We looked at a diverse range of topics in the course, including Islamic science, the history of the Galileo affair, William James’ investigations of spirit mediums, postcolonial science studies, and fractal geometry in West Africa.